Nostalgia can be a delightful thing. We sit by our windows perhaps and look at the sunset while remembering perfect summers long ago, or the time when we had bodies that were fitter, or loved ones we still need who are nevertheless beyond reach. Or perhaps we recall food that was bought and cooked for us by some responsible adult while we did nothing but exist and get loved for doing so, because we were children and lucky to be in a household and a country with concern for its young and their careful raising.
I can even stare back fondly at my own nostalgia. I was an intensely nostalgic little girl, somehow convinced that no year would ever be better than my fourth on Earth. Until I was ten or so, I would notice myself repeating "When I was four…" I would then describe some wonderful aspect of what seemed an age of mythical calm, certainty and plenty. I didn’t quite believe in it, but I wanted to very much. I said the words as if they were a spell to bring back something like comfort, or peace, but more unreachable, unnameable. I have to assume that my constant backward glances were connected with a realisation that my parents had an unhappy marriage. When I was four, I still hadn’t noticed my mother’s unhappiness, or my father’s strangeness. But then I did notice. I knew and could not unknow a number of facts I did not like and over which I was powerless. And my paradise was lost, no matter how much I talked about it, because time moves only forwards and never in reverse.
As the UK tumbles into its fourth, disastrous year beyond Brexit, we are a nation locked in various culture wars. Brexiteers never could present an honest case for invading and occupying ourselves and then imposing sanctions upon ourselves and wrecking our nation’s infrastructure and institutions. There is no attractive case to make for a madness that grotesque – even in a country with a long history of proletarian and middle-class masochism. Therefore, a deeply ugly alliance of disaster capitalists, feral corporations, media barons, high-maintenance narcissists, spies and mobsters had to disguise what was effectively a plan to wreck and then loot a frail democracy. Various stirring words were clumped into groups of three and announced as slogans – vague, aspirational, meaningless, but comforting, heartening, and also enraging. In this way, roughly one third of our electorate were bounced into voting in favour of a concept so foggy that anyone could load it with any hopes, any fears, any dreams. Suddenly, a non-binding vote with no set supermajority was being held up as holy writ, a burning imperative that must slam us into immediate action, kicking us over a happy cliff and into a bright future. Rather more of us didn’t vote at all than voted for a mass suicide which has become less and less figurative. It was The Will of the People.
But it was Nostalgia. All those three-word slogans ever amounted to was "Things Have Changed", "You Are Scared", "You Are Old", "Things Were Better". Yes, we are deep inside a Culture war cauldron. Terrible ideas flail about all around us – a nudge towards genocide here, a bit of loathing there, a dash of misogyny, eugenicist thought experiments in Op Eds… The usual idiocies of a country preparing to collapse. We are even something of a testing ground now for talking points and obsessions likely to catch the popular imagination. Before, we used to be given our strategy from the US, now the dark flow has reversed direction. But, beneath it all, we are pitting nostalgia against nostalgia.
We allowed a whole political and media class to seriously advocate for time travel as a solution to all our woes. Brexit’s most successful slogan "Take Back Control" was a neat joke at the expense of a populace now robbed of all control and in the hands of thuggish charlatans. It was all about the past, about conjuring that unnameable something we know that we have somehow lost in the loneliness and challenge of growing up.
Into the Hearts and Minds
Brexit was, of course, not a project about returning is to a happy childhood – either our own or that of some fictional happy household. We were never going to be loved, just for existing, we were going to be redefined as Human Capital and endlessly tested for flaws that render us disposable. Brexit is about a burning libertarian future, an inrushing authoritarian hellscape, a piratical corporate kingdom receiving stolen goods and acting as a concierge for the world’s worst people. It was a conjuring of our ruling class’s own communal past – of empire looting, of white entitlement, aristocratic entitlement, of blissful, childish freedom from responsibility, law, consequence, the need to ever develop any skills. It was very, very much about the past. But it couldn’t succeed without capturing the minds and hearts of enough of the masses. Luckily, austerity imposed by successive, increasingly Far Right regimes meant that, for many, the present already offered nothing but pains.
An appeal to the past, to nostalgia, could harness their discontentments. And isn’t it tempting and empowering when one is old, to imagine that young people were braver and worked harder when we were young people, too? And surely there must have been a time when there were only nice white folks in the UK and the only language you’d hear on the bus would be English? That might make us feel more at home and welcome, superior. And surely no one questioned the solid foundations of our pride and dignity: a serially dishonoured flag, a vastly dysfunctional aristocracy, a right way of doing things and saying things and well-tended lawns and crumpets for tea and church bells ringing in the evening, tolled by respectful men of the land who were happy with living and dying poor with no healthcare or education to speak of. That would mean we could really Take Back Control just by loving everything that’s hurts us, harder and harder still. Didn’t people cleave to simple and patriotic values and unite behind the red, white and blue? If they did, then a return to such imbecile faith might bring back a simplicity of living: pride, satisfying labour, freedom from stress. And we did win one noble war by being heroes and joining together with communal singing and watching Spitfires twirling in the blue – and lots of other countries helped and we did it by being the opposite of Nazis, but maybe just being fascists would be mean this time we won quicker, because apparently democracy’s a joke now …?
And couldn’t it be true that only a few decades ago there just weren’t any gay people, or trans people, or people with allergies, or people who found demeaning language offensive? Couldn’t we just grow comfortable with our own self-loathing by loathing others more? And when did women stop being happy with their kitchen and their kids and polishing the church brass on Sunday’s? Couldn’t we hate them, too – the ones that speak, the ones that want choices and jobs and agency and gentleness? And wasn’t there a time when everyone wished everyone else Merry Christmas all the year round, because we were all so pleased to be Christian and to no other creeds really existed and that meant we were the best, not just on Earth, but in Heaven, too – hand in hand with a blonde, Caucasian Jesus, because Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me?
And so on.
We Are the Staff
That’s the terrible thing about nostalgia – it’s always so close to wishful thinking, can so easily become delusion. For Britain is has become a national religion made of old movies and joys we miss and instructional headlines and all other whisperings and warnings of voices which spend every day changing our minds. Part daydream and part purity project, Brexit managed to focus the attention of enough Brits to drag the whole country into a permanent argument with reality. We’re the best people with the best skills – but we can no longer even post a letter and be sure it will ever arrive. Without immigrants – the dreaded aliens we endlessly smear - we lack all the numberless skills and abilities that kept our island functional. Our libertarians thought we could skip training for craftspeople, artisans and just import them – we were born to be masters, not servants, after all. But now we live in a closed island, Hostile Environment for all outsiders, we’re falling apart. We Brits can long to cosplay "Downton Abbey" as much as we like, it turns out nothing works without the servant class – and for most of is, we’re now it. No fine dining with Maggie Smith for us – we’re the staff.
British art is supposed – like everything else – be world beating. But we relied on the EU to support the whole sector, in the same way we relied on it to support our farmers, fishermen, flood defences, inner cities, Cornwall, Wales – all the boring bits of a country that no properly educated Eton Old Boy would care about. We have been groomed to believe ourselves the most intelligent and innovative race in the world – but our universities are sinking, our researchers have either fled or are cut out of anything resembling normal international collaboration and the financial supports for quality work. Overseas students don’t want to come Here – and we can no longer get assistance to go There. Very few people do want to come Here, beyond the refugees whose access we block at every turn, leaving them to risk their lives in little boats – a symbol of heartbreak and horror for many of us, but a symbol of threat and "Great Replacement" for the extremely vocal few.
The useful mass who were induced to ask for Brexit, to demand it, were promised a world that never was, an ethnostate that never was, a time machine that never existed.
We still have money, of course. We have watched billions of our national wealth disappear in Covid frauds, be paid in allowances and indulgences to our rulers, or rerouted into complex misappropriations and strange deals. The City is buoyant, our legacy press has an appetite for government handouts, as do multiple entities allowed to charge us exorbitant sums for essentials, while also demanding public subsidies. We pay and pay and pay and in return we get zero hours contracts, dangerous housing, destitution, graves.
You know at least as well as I do what has happened to us after Brexit. You know more than most Brits, having access to a legacy press other than our own, not reliant on the shamefully debased and compromised BBC. Still, you have other concerns, other countries in which to take an interest. Brexit is old news, unless you’re close enough to see the fresh injuries appearing daily: a national monument threatened here, an arts centre collapsing there, a few more business closures, or unavailable items, new sections of coastline smothering under tides of excrement on all sides. But we’re not just old news, we’re shameful news.
Many Brits watch Ukraine’s struggle for existence, the bravery, the resistance, the potential turning point for democracy and we know our regime, that has profited from Russian capital for years, simply lied and manipulated themselves into power. No tanks and mercenaries, no nuclear threats. Just money and enough ambient amorality to gain a foothold and then take the whole country. Putin may never restore Stalin’s dream of a Russian empire, but Joe must be laughing in the Bolshevik afterlife – he always wanted to destroy England and now a hyper-nationalist English regime is eating itself down to the bone while the rest of the UK backs away.
Rage And Weariness
Countries around the world are battling a reinvigorated Far Right, the online radicalisation of terrorism, targeted cyber attacks funded by nation states, manipulations of currency, psychology, stocks for geopolitical as well as economic gain. Various regimes with sufficient resources and malevolence throttle back the flow of hydrocarbons to Europe, and stoke the flow of refugees whenever weaponised racist panic seems to be waning. Brexit Britain’s response? Brexit was always about becoming the concierge for international crime. Too hot to trade anywhere else? Too much unexplained money? Too many human rights crimes, a little genocide? We’ll wash your money, we’ll overlook every indiscretion, sell you some mansions, maybe a grouse moor or two. Soon we’ll be a tax- and regulation-free hellhole with luxury secure compounds for you to enjoy and a desperate workforce who’ll endure anything for scraps and media distractions. First the disabled, then the destitute, the refugees, the aliens, the Roma and Travellers … a hauntingly familiar list of people have found it more and more difficult to live. Covid added an opportunity to cull "useless eaters" using fatal infection – and it was grasped with both hands.
Oh, we marched and demonstrated, we did our best, we still are pushing back against the tide, but we are clearly not the nation which once helped defeat fascism and airlift food to Berlin. And we are not the independent, intelligent, funny, cultured, humane people that kind strangers have sometimes held us to be. Our own government radicalises, propagandises, spreads internets rumours and practises terror. The street thugs punching "foreign" faces, the arsonists trying to burn refugee centres – they’re unsubtle. Words are spells – we are saying spells that are about people disappearing. Our rulers escalate fatal pressures gently, destroying the weakest and most marginalised first. But in a time of engineered chaos no one is especially safe, not even MPs – two have been murdered in the last 5 years: one by a Far Right sympathiser and one by a supporter of Deash.
And we are drowning in new nostalgias. Roughly a third of the electorate voted for Brexit. Increasingly, they now regret their choice, but the true believers must be ever angrier to maintain their faith, this means they grow ever more isolated. The rest of us swing between depression, rage, regret and weariness. And around us the country falls, ever faster and really, truly, the past was a better place, a kinder, gentler country. Our young – generally more pro-EU – are facing a future of climate catastrophe and national decline. My generation watches all its assumptions burn away: that we would remain a democracy, that we could have savings, that we could plan beyond next week, that we could relax. The old are dying or dead. Increasingly all we have is this new, savage nostalgia - the special longing of people inhabiting countries in decline. Even last week, even yesterday can seem magical and tender. We were lucky then.
Bearbeitung: Ingo Herzke, Hamburg